13. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Dirty Secret

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Source: PUBLIC CITIZEN, Date: January/February 1994, Title: “What the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Won’t Tell You: Aging Reactors, Poorly Trained Workers,” Authors: Matthew Freedman and Jim Riccio

SSU Censored Researcher: Kate Kauffman

SYNOPSIS: Secret internal industry documents obtained by Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project reveal that America’s nuclear reactors have more serious safety, training, and equipment problems than govern­ment regulators acknowledge.

The internal documents are plant evaluations performed by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), an Atlanta-based group founded by nuclear utilities in the wake of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. INPO routinely sends inspection teams to operating reactors, reviews significant operating problems and equipment malfunctions, and maintains data bases on nuclear power plant operation. The detailed reports are submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commis­sion (NRC), where they are required reading for NRC inspec­tors. However, the NRC has not released the reports to the public nor has it been diligent in acting on reported problems.

A 1991 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, found 12 instances in the previous two years where “NRC decided not to issue its own information notice because INPO had already alerted the industry to a potential problem.” The GAO concluded that “information that may be important to the public’s under­standing of nuclear power opera­tions is not publicly available.” Public Citizen’s examination of the documents reveals long­standing deficiencies at nuclear reactors across the nation that could jeopardize public health and safety. The findings conflict with public assessments made by the NRC.

While the NRC is expected to use the INPO reports to improve conditions at the nuclear reactors, a comparison of the INPO and NRC documents by Public Citizen reveals that NRC regulators often recom­mend reduced oversight at reactors where INPO identified serious defi­ciencies. Altogether, NRC’s reports only managed to report on about one-third of the total findings iden­tified by INPO; the other two-thirds were either ignored or directly con­tradicted. Out of 55 findings at 34 reactors cited by INPO for deficient chemistry programs, NRC addressed only two.

The failure of NRC to report and correct deficiencies at the nation’s nuclear reactors is a serious one; since current reactors are the first generation to operate for any sub­stantial length of time (the oldest operating unit just turned 30 years old), much of the understanding of long-term aging problems remains incompleteand hypothetical.

Most importantly, the secret documents reported by Public Citizen reveal that the aging nuclear reactors are plagued by a variety of management and tech­nical problems which reduce the margin of safety at operating reac­tors. And while the NRC has evi­dence of the problems, it is neither reporting nor admitting them.

COMMENTS: While the story was reported in most daily newspa­pers and carried on the Associated Press and Reuters wires, no major television networks nor newsweekly magazines carried it. The authors, Matthew Freedman and Jim Riccio, felt that the level of exposure was constrained by the paucity of reporters who cover nuclear energy and the tendency of many major newspapers to bury stories critical of the nuclear industry. The New York Times placed the story in the Metro Section while the Boston Globe put it on page 70.

Equally important, according to the authors, “There was no follow-up by any reporters, despite our urging them to investigate further the connections between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). Reporters are generally reactive on nuclear safety issues and rarely take any initiative to investigate nuclear regulation unless there is an acci­dent or an imminent risk of dis­aster. Our report raised many ques­tions about the propriety of rela­tions between NRC and INPO and asserted that NRC is misrepre­senting the state of nuclear safety in public evaluations of specific reactors. No reporters attempted to explore the reasons for such mis­representation, nor have they sub­sequently challenged other NRC public evaluations on the basis of our report’s findings.”

Noting that nuclear regulation is extremely complex and difficult for most citizens to understand, the authors also feel that the arcane nature of regulatory procedures do not facilitate a free exchange of information between regulators and the public. However, they add, “Government regulators, charged with overseeing the operation of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors, have a special duty to be open, honest and aggressive about safety problems. When agencies like the NRC find deficiencies at licensed facilities, the public has a right to know that their health and safety may be in danger.

“If regulators provide incomplete or incorrect information, then reporters have a responsibility to publicize the agency’s failure to act in the public interest.”

“Without timely and thorough media coverage of federal regula­tory actions, citizens have no ability to know whether or not they are being adequately protected from risks which could endanger their families and communities.”

The authors consider the pri­mary beneficiaries of the limited coverage to include “the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the commercial nuclear power industry, which includes reactor manufac­turers, industry associations and electric utilities who own or operate nuclear facilities. In the absence of information to the contrary, the public will continue to trust the NRC and local utilities to ensure the safe and economical operation of nuclear reactors.”

While the authors feel their investigative article issued a strong wake-up call to the nuclear industry and journalists, they doubt whether anyone was listening.

“Our article details the first comprehensive comparison of internal nuclear industry docu­ments with public evaluations of reactor safety performed by the NRC. Our findings that wide dis­parities exist between what the industry knows and what NRC makes publicly available should have generated far more investiga­tion into the INPO-NRC relation­ship. It also should make reporters increasingly skeptical about the NRC’s willingness to be forthright about safety concerns and provide accurate information to the public.”

“These results failed to materi­alize primarily because reporters tended to treat our report as a one­day flash in the pan, not a basis for undermining long-term confidence in the behavior of federal nuclear regulators.”

“Since our initial release, there has been little, if any, further press attention given to the story.”